The New York Times Credulously Embraces the ‘Super Meth’ Theory
A story about polysubstance use in today’s New York Times mentions “super meth” four times: once in the headline, once in a subhead, and twice in the body text. “A decade or so ago, Mexican drug lords figured out how to mass-produce a synthetic ‘super meth,'” Times reporter Jan Hoffman writes. “It has provoked what some researchers are calling a second meth epidemic. Popular up and down the West Coast, super meth from Mexican and American labs has been marching East and South and into parts of the Midwest.”
Yet Hoffman never explains what “super meth” means. Instead she links to a widely cited 2021 article in The Atlantic by journalist Sam Quinones. In that piece, which is based on Quinones’ 2021 book The Least of Us, he posits that methamphetamine derived from phenyl-2-propanone (P2P), the dominant method nowadays, is more potent and more hazardous than methamphetamine derived from pseudoephedrine, a process that became less common after the U.S. government restricted access to that precursor.
If that were true, it would be yet another illustration of prohibition’s tendency to make drug use more dangerous: By cracking down on cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine, the government pushed production abroad and encouraged traffickers to use P2P instead, which, according to Quinones, made the resulting methamphetamine purer, more addictive, more physically harmful, and more likely to trigger “mental illness”—so much so that, according to the headline over his Atlantic article, it might not even make sense to “call it meth anymore.” But although Hoffman evidently considers Quinones a credible source, he never offered a plausible reason to believe any of that.
As drug historian David Herzberg notes in a Washington Post review of Quinones’ book, “Quinones has no laboratory or epidemiological evidence that P2P meth is different from ephedrine-produced meth—the ‘super-meth’ theory is based entirely on anecdotes.” Herzberg adds that “journalists were writing equally terrifying things about ‘crack’ cocaine and ephedrine-based meth (and heroin) back in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Quinones himself is hazy on the scientific basis for his theory. “No one I spoke with knew for sure” why “P2P meth” was “producing such pronounced symptoms of mental illness in so many people,” he says.
Claire Zagorski, a paramedic who teaches harm reduction at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, questions the assumption
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